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01.13.2020

Using Data from Space to Make Informed Decisions about Toxic Red Tide Outbreaks

By: Dr. Jianke Li, Chief Oceanographer, Maxar Technologies


Read Time: 4 minutes

A State of Emergency in Florida

In the summer of 2018, a toxic algae bloom called red tide slowly crept up the coast of Florida, killing thousands of fish and emitting noxious fumes that caused respiratory illness to beachgoers. On July 9, 2018, then-Florida governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for seven Florida counties. In just over a month, he added another seven. In Lee County alone, USATODAY reported 2.7 million pounds of dead fish and sea creatures, and according to CNN, the prolonged event cost Florida millions of dollars.

To make matters worse, just when people started to forget about the unpleasant event after the water began to clear up, it returned to the southwest coast of Florida in October 2019.

What is Red Tide?

Red tide is the common name for algae blooms. While most algae blooms are harmless, some colonies of algae grow rampantly and create toxins when they bloom. These toxins can pollute water, kill fish and damage marine ecosystems. As seen in Florida, red tide can also pollute the surrounding air and make it difficult to breathe. Consuming contaminated seafood and human exposure to polluted air can lead to illness or even death.

Scientists believe there is no single cause of red tide and have attributed its occurrence to many factors such as favorable water temperature, salinity, currents, wind and excessive nutrient runoff -- yet the underlying mechanism is still not well understood.

Toxic algae blooms called red tide pollute water, damage marine ecosystems and emit noxious fumes. Image: Flickr User AJC1

Economic Impact

In addition to negatively affecting marine life, red tide has a severe impact on local economies. Analysts at The Insight Partners say that the production and consumption rate of seafood is expanding rapidly across the globe, causing an uptick in growth for the $265 billion global aquaculture market. Red tide poses a dangerous threat to this market, which loses money when toxins contaminate the fish or when harvesting is forbidden. According to the University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute, the 2015-2016 red tide event in Florida resulted in a loss of $3.3 million in revenue for the shellfish aquaculture industry alone. Tourism, recreation and other industries are also adversely affected. The Washington Post reported that Florida business owners lost nearly $90 million and laid off about 300 workers due to the drop in tourism when red tide hit the state in 2018.

Monitoring Red Tide from Space

While red tide was first recorded in the 1800s, government agencies have been slow to deal with it– mainly due to the lack of reliable decision-making tools. Using ocean color measurements taken from space, Maxar has developed a product that monitors the onset and development of red tide around the world in near real-time.

Maxar’s red tide monitoring service is displayed in a color raster map image with a fixed color scale. The low or the blue end of the color scale indicates clear water without red tide occurrence, and the high or the red end indicates otherwise. The higher the values on the map, the more severe the red tide is. Fig. 1 shows the red tide monitoring image for the date of February 11, 2019, when the red tide outbreak from 2018 had been cleared up; and Fig. 2 shows the date of October 31, 2019, when the red tide came back to Southwest Florida.

Fig 1. Red tide monitoring for the coast of Florida for the date of February 11th, 2019.
Fig 2. Red tide monitoring for the coast of Florida for the date of October 31st, 2019.

While we don’t yet understand why toxic red tide emerges, Maxar’s red tide monitoring product provides actionable insights that enable commercial farm managers and governmental agencies across the globe to closely monitor the status and evolution of harmful algae blooms and quickly make informed decisions. With an early warning, decision-makers can help mitigate the economic losses and adverse environmental and health effects associated with red tide outbreaks and ultimately help ensure healthy marine ecosystems.

For more information on Maxar’s red tide monitoring product, please email marineservices@maxar.com.

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